Last spring, Rachel Santizo earned her degree in criminal justice with a 3.92 GPA and was named one of Salt Lake Community College’s 2021 Graduates of Excellence.
But her path to graduation came with numerous obstacles, including a decade of addiction — which started with prescribed pain pills and led to drugs like meth and heroin — to living on the streets.
“After an almost 10-year battle, I became exhausted. I literally could not do it anymore,” Santizo said. “It was treatment or suicide, and I didn’t have the courage to commit suicide. I was broken and defeated. I had lost everything I loved. Today, I am nine and a half years sober.”
Santizo decided to seek treatment and detox through the Odyssey House in 2012 and described going through a period of feeling judged for her history of substance abuse.
“Addiction is very complex and often feared or misunderstood,” Santizo said. “I believe in the power of change. I have to. If not, I wouldn’t be here.”
As she worked on understanding her addiction, Santizo realized she could use her experiences to help the community.
“I have a unique view that can bridge gaps that may not otherwise be seen or heard … I want to help people and create change in my community,” Santizo said. “I speak the language and understand the behaviors, so criminal justice was the perfect fit for me.”
The decision to enroll at SLCC “terrified” Santizo, who doubted her ability to succeed, but said those feelings dissipated when she started her classes.
“My professors never made me feel less than. My biggest struggle was writing papers,” Santizo reflected. “I was extremely intimidated. When I expressed any concerns I had, my teachers listened and walked beside me.”
Santizo left a “lasting impression” on her professors, who described her as an engaged learner, community leader and role model.
Santizo enrolled in the Life Drugs and Society class taught by adjunct professor Anna West, who said she appreciated the candor and willingness with which Santizo disclosed her past to her classmates.
“She wrote a term paper that was so good we published it in the Open Catalog of Student Work, and it’s a sample for all students,” West said. “In the paper, she compiled research about and advocated for access to health care for those living with severe substance use disorder. It was one of the best papers I have seen at all levels of education.”
Assistant professor David Robles characterized Santizo as a distinguished student who made an immediate impression in his criminal justice course.
“I remember the first day of class hearing about her past experiences and truly acknowledging the depth that Rachel was going to bring to the classroom,” Robles said.
Robles noted that Santizo often led discussions with her peers and always contributed “insightful comments and questions, even when discussing difficult and controversial topics.”
Santizo’s impact on her professors extended beyond the classroom. When West got the opportunity to begin teaching for SLCC inside the prison, she knew Santizo would be a trusted resource.
“She built my confidence and told me that I have everything I need to go into the prison, because all the students inside need is patience and kindness,” West said. “I’m grateful that I could ask her because I was nervous, and she put me at ease.”
Robles echoed that sentiment.
“Since I practice a pedagogical approach where both the student learns from the teacher and the teacher learns from the student — Rachel was a student who I learned plenty from,” Robles said, noting that Santizo is one of the most impactful students he had the honor of teaching.
Graduate of Excellence
According to Robles, Santizo demonstrated a path to excellence from the beginning by making her goals known and embodying them both in and out of the classroom.
“Rachel exemplified excellence by completing her degree,” Robles said. “Although this accomplishment may seem simple to others, if you know about Rachel’s life, this was a long and enduring process that challenged her in many ways. Despite the barriers, trials, and even traumas, Rachel walked across the stage at graduation — and to me, that was the embodiment of excellence.”
To Santizo, being named Graduate of Excellence was a “complete honor and mind-blowing.”
“At one point in my life, I wasn’t sure if I would live to see another day,” Santizo said. “When I walked [at graduation] holding the flag representing my school, I had never held my head so high. I looked up at my children and in that moment, I knew that all my hard work had paid off — that I was worthy of great things, that I am the woman I had been fighting to be.”
Continuing to make change
Santizo, who once looked to the Odyssey House for help, now works as the program manager of their residential program.
“It is incredible to have the opportunity to give back what has been given to me,” Santizo said.
Santizo also co-hosts a weekly podcast with veteran Utah newscaster Randall Carlisle, called “Odyssey House Journals.”
“We speak about recovery and different stories pertaining to substance dependency and alcoholism,” Santizo said. “Every week, I get to hear another story from a hero who had the courage to do something different in their life.”
Santizo works Monday through Friday at the Odyssey House and noted the importance of keeping a structured schedule. Weekends are reserved for writing letters and sending care packages to her son in the National Guard, sleepovers with her grandson, and doing recovery work at Fit to Recover where she helps teach a fitness boot camp.
“This [boot camp] is soul food. This is a free class to the community for anyone looking for connection, love and support that is trying to find freedom from alcohol or substances or support from mental health issues,” Santizo said. “We exercise, connect with each other in a non-judgmental way that allows us to come as we are and leave a little bit better each time, together.”
Through adversity, Santizo has battled addiction and used her experiences and empathy to help others with similar experiences, but she realizes this is only possible with support from others.
“I am 100% convinced that I cannot do sobriety on my own. I need support around to encourage me during times I struggle,” Santizo said. “I need love when I am not at my best. I need to be okay with not being okay — simply stated, the acceptance of being a human being.”
Santizo began her educational career convinced that graduating from SLCC was an unattainable goal. She has a message for those who feel the same way.
“The deeper your fear or story, the more you have to tell others after you conquer what is in front of you,” Santizo said. “Fear is motivating if you allow it. Education is empowering. You get one life, so in order to fully grasp all there is to know, an education is critical. Everyone is deserving of that.”